While it would seem that we should be thoroughly cognisant of the effects of war due to rolling media coverage and school history lessons, these typically clinical recitations of facts and figures belie the depth of trauma suffered by those who experience it first hand. Documentary short To Tell a Ghost from Directors Chris Piotrowicz and Stefan Ehrhardt takes a different approach by following Bosnian-American musician Mirza Ramic of electronic music duo Arms and Sleepers, as he returns to his home city of Mostar in an attempt to process the losses he suffered as a refugee of the Bosnian War. Premiering on DN today, we speak to Piotrowicz, Ehrhardt and Ramic about the creation of this deeply affecting story of loss, remembrance and healing.
This isn’t the first project that you’ve collaborated with Mirza on. How did your working relationship begin and ultimately coalesce in To Tell A Ghost?
Mirza and I have known each other over the internet for a couple of years because I asked him to help me out with music on an earlier documentary project of mine, which he thankfully did! That’s how things started, with a simple email. Later in 2018, he came to our home town of Cologne in the West of Germany and I saw him playing. After the concert we had a brief chat. 1-2 months later Mirza approached me via mail and asked if I was keen to help him out producing a music video in his parents’ destroyed house in Mostar. Of course I was interested! Luckily at the same time Stefan, who just finished his campervan, and I were looking for a country to visit in summer for a big road trip – it was the perfect timing and there was no doubt that we would combine the road trip with the production of the film.
The initial concept was pretty rough, something like: “Let’s play the piano in the abandoned house!” After a little brainstorming, we decided to take things to the next level and added multiple layers like the interview, footage of Mostar and much more.
With this more developed conceptualisation in place what was your approach to the shoot and how did the weight of the subject determine your stylistic and equipment choices?
Equipment-wise we kept it pretty simple: One Panasonic GH5 with old vintage lenses and a handy tripod. Small and pragmatic. Since we were dealing with such heavy imagery, we didn’t want to have fancy camera movements which might distract from the scenery and history.
In total we had roughly 5 days of shooting – almost every day was hotter than 35 degrees celsius. All in all though we had practically no problems during filming, besides shooting on the famous bridge of Mostar because we wanted to have it empty except for Mirza walking alone. There was a little pain getting that shot but besides that, the shoot was very satisfying.
We didn’t want to have fancy camera movements which might distract from the scenery and history.
We tried our best to capture the atmosphere of Mostar. The aftermath of the war is still very present, as one can easily tell from the buildings, there’s still a lot of work to do – Mirza’s trauma seems to be a metaphor for the whole city, slowly there’s a process of healing.
What was the reasoning behind presenting Mirza’s return to Mostar in black & white while keeping the war/archive footage in colour?
The choice of black and white is part of our overall concept. The main reason for working with b/w is the same as the fixed camera positions and pictures that are graphical and reduced. The film is heavily loaded with information in the voiceover. To let the audience perceive and focus more easily on the voiceover narrative we decided it’d be best to not stimulate the vision of the viewer too much. To underline and emphasize the brutality of war we decided to colourize the archive material to have a contrast between the present narrative and the throwback to the fights. We wanted to create a shocking momentum in which it is feelable that war is real and it can hit you unexpectedly.
As this was a project initiated by Mirza how did you formulate the questions which ultimately formed the basis of his voiceover? Were there key points that you (and Mirza) knew absolutely had to be part of this extremely personal reflection?
Before we left Germany to travel to Bosnia we educated ourselves about the Yugoslavia war to get a theoretical background and a better idea of what happened there due to the narrative of the history books. What we wanted was to transmit how the people who experienced that war felt but we also wanted to put it in a correct historical background. So our first draft of the interview was quite factual and a lot about historical incidents.
When we sat down with Mirza to interview him we also made space for spontaneous questions. Quite quickly we realised that the interview was going in a way too factual direction but also helped us to break the ice and slide into more personal levels. Since we allowed ourselves to go left and right from our planned direction of the interview, it was possible to organically glide into Mirza’s perception. Also, there was no time pressure for the interview and since we were both so hooked on Mirza’s lips, it was more like a very intimate talk – there were times where we forgot that we actually had a microphone.
The biggest part of the work came in post. We had more than 2 hours of interview footage with Mirza so we went through the recordings to try to break it down to the essential core of Mirza’s story. After we had the first sketch of the voiceover, we sent it to Mirza (who edited a couple of passages) to confirm that we were getting his message right. Since there was a lot of editing in our actual organically recorded material, we decided that it would be best to take the content of the edited voiceover, write it down and let Mirza record it again to make sure the single parts of his narrative felt more connected. That then became the final voiceover which you hear in the film.
It was more like a very intimate talk and there were times where we forgot that we actually had a microphone.
How was the rest of post?
There was also a long research process of watching old war documentaries on YouTube. We really wanted to find the perfect images to go along with our story. We tried to get in touch with some of the original authors of the war documentaries but didn’t receive a reply, that’s why we gave credit to the original postings on YouTube. One night while shooting in Mostar, Mirza showed us some old VHS footage of his dad and himself spending time at the graveyard. It’s actually the only video footage existing of his Dad. This VHS footage became another pillar in the narrative of the documentary.
Two more big extras happened in post: Daniel Herget did the sound design and Lukas Häusler color graded the film. Those two guys really gave the whole documentary another quality. Thanks again for your work, dudes! 🙂
Mirza, how has the process of making To Tell A Ghost recontextualised your feelings and thoughts about your father, Mostar and your own journey through life?
One of the big motivating factors behind creating this film was self-healing. I viewed this project as an important stepping stone toward eventual coming to terms with my past and my identity. I knew that my personal journey of finding some semblance of inner peace wouldn’t end with this film, but the hope was that it would get me a bit closer to that goal.
I am still processing the making of this film and people’s reaction to it, so I haven’t been able to properly reflect on how much self-healing it has brought me. The project has certainly brought a lot of existing memories and emotions to the surface, which is ultimately a good thing as I am forced to confront them more directly. I think the making of the film initially made me sad and to some extent angry – it made me remember the harsh reality that yes, my father is long gone and that yes, there is this surreal other life I had in Bosnia & Herzegovina which now exists purely in my memory. I don’t know how else to describe this feeling other than absurd and unnerving.
I viewed this project as an important stepping stone toward eventual coming to terms with my past and my identity.
The making of the film has really shown me how important it is to remember and recount. I think sharing personal, human stories is an incredibly powerful way to encourage empathy while healing oneself. While I don’t know that I’ll ever be at peace with my past, I do know that perhaps something positive can come out of a very negative thing. I’ll always deeply miss my father and our life in Mostar how I remember it as a kid, but there isn’t much to be done about that other than to carry the positive memories with me into the world and try to be a good person myself.
And finally Chris & Stefan, as filmmakers what effect has this project had on the two of you?
All in all, it’s been an amazing journey and creative process. The whole project started in August 2018 and we were finally finished in April 2019, after a couple of breaks, because of commercial jobs and various deadlines on other projects. We are all very proud to release the film finally. We consider the film to be the best in our careers so far and both have the feeling that we did justice to a highly sensitive topic.
We don’t see To Tell A Ghost as a specifically Bosnian story – we feel it’s an archetypical story. Similar developments can be found in other refugee stories from all around the world and different time eras. Finally, we want to say that we hope that the film inspires people to consider the meaning of war and for us, one fact became pretty clear – there are no winners in war.